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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, April 18, 2024

Buzzer-beater gives Tufts New England Big 4 Challenge Championship

Tufts junior guard Tarik Smith stays ahead of an Amherst defender on Feb. 21.

Tufts played in the New England Big 4 Challenge this weekend and came away with the tournament championship after a dramatic final over the 11th-ranked Babson College.The team played the hosts, Salem State, on Saturday, and came away with a 90-77 win to advance to the finals. The Jumbos then played an instant-classic with the Beavers, coming away with a 3-point overtime win, 83-80, to win the tournament for the second time since 2009, the other win having come in 2011.

Tufts fell behind early in the championship game to Babson, who was playing for its third straight tournament title. The Beavers jumped out to a 10-2 lead, with junior forward Isaiah Nelson scoring four of those first 10 points. Nelson led Babson scoring with 22 points in the game. The lead, however, did not hold for long, as a 14-0 run by Tufts put it in the lead. Sophomore guards Vincent Pace and Ben Engvall both connected on 3-pointers during the stretch. Pace led the team in the first half with 11 points, and junior guard Tarik Smith ended the first half with eight points. The Jumbos led 40-24 after the first 20 minutes of action.

“The new motion offense has been working well,” Pace said. “We have a lot of talented guys who can make plays. We trust each other to do the right thing and know that we have the support of everyone on the team every shot we take. We're all each other's biggest supporters and give each other a lot of confidence.”

The Beavers would fight back to begin the second half. They went on a 10-2 run after returning from halftime and then used a 14-4 run capped by a Nelson layup to give them a one-point lead with 8:01 left in the game. The Beavers stretched their lead to six with 3:44 left in the game on a free-throw from junior forward Charlie Rice, but the Tufts defense held strong and did not allow a field goal for the remainder of regulation. Senior tri-captain guard Ryan Spadaford scored a layup with 35 seconds left to give Tufts a one-point lead, but Nelson was fouled with 22 seconds to go and had a chance to give Babson the lead. Nelson went one for two at the line to tie the game, and Tufts was not able to convert on its next possession, sending the game to overtime tied at 73.

The overtime period provided as much drama and back-and-forth as regulation time. Pace hit a 3 at the 4:12 mark, but five straight Beavers points, with four from sophomore forward Bradley Jacks, put them in front by two at 78-76. The game was tied at 80 with 30 seconds left after free throws by Babson junior guard/forward tri-captain Joey Flannery, setting up the signature moment for Tufts in the early season.

Smith handled the ball at the top of the key and drove into the lane on the left side of the floor. When the defense collapsed, he kicked it out to Spadaford who hoisted up a 3-pointer. The shot went in right before the buzzer sounded, giving Tufts the championship.

“The play action wasn’t drawn up for me,” Spadaford said. “It was for Tarik. He drove, and everyone collapsed. He just kind of threw it to the opposite wing. I just caught it, and it was really contested ... I just threw it up there and [hoped] it [would go] in, and it did. [The] buzzer rang, and it was crazy.”

Smith finished the game with 19 points and five assists, on his way to being named to the All-Tournament team, and Spadaford finished with 13 points and seven rebounds. Pace led the way for the Jumbo offense with 25 points, on his way to being named the tournament MVP.

“I've been working on my jump shot, so I've had more confidence in that this past tournament,” Pace said. “Also, my teammates did a great job of finding me in [points during the] game [when] I could either shoot, attack the rim or get to the free throw line. And the coaches have been really supportive, giving me confidence to play my game and score the ball.”

Before the championship game, Tufts defeated the home team Salem State on Saturday afternoon. Pace scored 25 points in this game as well, and it was junior tri-captain center Tom Palleschi who scored 10 points in the first half. His six points in the first five minutes of the game allowed the Jumbos to open up a 17-6 lead in the early going. The Jumbos led 42-29 at halftime.

“It was very important [to start strong],” Pace said. “It definitely was an emphasis in pre-game talks to get off to a good start especially after slow starts against RIC and WPI. The starting lineup was a little different, and I thought those guys gave us a lot of energy to start off the game.”

The Jumbos cruised to a 90-77 win thanks to their ability to drive the ball, maintaining a double-digit lead throughout the second half. Palleschi scored 20 points in the game, and the team as a whole scored 42 points in the paint and made 23 free throws. The team shot 47 percent from the field, indicative of the easy shots players were getting in the lane.

“I think if we keep rebounding and pushing the ball up the floor, I think we’ll be one of the toughest teams to guard, honestly, in the country,” Spadaford said. “Hopefully, we can keep beating ranked teams.”

Tufts is are back in action today when it takes on Plymouth State at home. After a successful weekend, the team hopes to continue to make strides and establish itself as a team to watch this season.